Tom Surowicz - What Say You?

There have been some fabled recording studios in the Twin Cities over the years. Herb Pilhofer's state-of- the-art Sound 80. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis' hit factory, Flyte Tyme. Prince's personal playground, Paisley Park.

John Fenner's backyard isn't on that list. But it turns out ya can make a fine record there, too.

It's the coldest night of the year, yet I'm feeling warm and fuzzy, listening again to this hip summer campfire recording by my Strange Friends. There's Mr. Fenner, the ringleader, the man with the backyard barbecue unit that's really just a hole in the ground with a fire in the middle. Seriously.

Around that hole on a June night, we also find two members of the beloved, seldom-seen Mubbla Buggs, arguably the most underrated Twin Cities rock/funk/reggae party band ever. Check out their CD, Colouramic, for the gloriously inscrutable evidence.

Let's talk for a minute about Eric Hohn and Pat Mavity, these Buggs who are our Friends. Mr. Hohn also regularly lays down funky '70s and '80s bass grooves with the Soul Tight Committee. And he's run sound for 1001 West Bank Nights, at the best folk, roots and world music venue in the whole Midwest, the Cedar Cultural Center. Meanwhile Mr. Mavity, who made his Strange Friends violin-playing debut on these very tunes (who needs Scarlet Rivera?), has been a longtime member of the ridiculously eclectic folk-rockin' combo, Machinery Hill, favorites at the aforementioned Cedar Cultural Center.

Then there's the new guy, the young blood, the fresh meat, drummer Tyler Erickson. Diligently working at his craft, he also plays punky alt-rock with the band Brown Moses. Which is older -- Strange Friends, or twenty-something Tyler? Probably the band, who made their first "official" recording, Under The Cherry Spoon, back in the mid-1980s. It was a cassette-only offering. Remember cassettes? They were small, perfect for the car, and you had to keep them away from magnets. Now almost two decades years later, this is Strange Friends' second official release, and hell -- it may even be worth the wait!

If this impromptu CD has the feel of a party in progress, that's audio verite, backyard boogie. Chris Frymire, another trusty Cedar Cultural Center soundman, also of Red House Records, captured the vibe perfectly. You can just about smell the whiskey and see the tiki torches. And from time to time you can variously hear an airplane flying overhead, Fenner's dog Mickey barking in the background, and some of the 20-or-so family members and not-so-strange friends who hung out until 2 a.m. at this most informal of recording sessions. Amazingly, no Minneapolis cops showed up, even though Fenner lives but a block away from Lake Street, within staggering distance of a police station. And there were no mosquitoes, either -- just Mubbla Buggs, showing off their faux female back-up vocals on a few selections.

The songs are all proudly Fenner's, except for track #2 -- "Drop This Life" -- by the truly great St. Paul songwriter, Judd Herrmann. Barflies of the past millenium may also know him as Judd the Blasphemer, the poet who started out on ukelele. Herrmann's the veteran of two terrific CD's himself for Atomic Theory Records, distributed by Rounder, chock full of slice-of-life songs that can punch ya in the stomach, make ya laugh out loud or cry. Despite the disarmingly jaunty Strange Friends arrangement, "Drop This Life" is one of Herrmann's more brutal ballads, the saga of dead teen prostitute, a Law & Order, SVU episode given a catchy melody.

The rest of Strange Friends' songs are much easier on the psyche, though frequently bittersweet. When asked about the hangdog love letter, "For Sara J. in Mississippi," or the break-up ballad, "Til The Sun Shines," Fenner is quick to set this fan straight. "It's all pure fiction. Any similarities to reality are completely coincidental. There's no such thing as an important song. They're all just for fun.

"Plus, some of those songs were written a long time ago." Ah yes, perhaps even before Fenner had become so intertwined with his stage persona as the cut-up, the consummate grade-A bullshit artist, the "card", the "character," the "Lickety Wham" fella waxing on about the virtues of infidelity. On those last two tracks, a very different but related animal -- call him the sensitive guy songsmith -- breaks right on through.

" 'Til the Sun Shines' is actually a parody of the early Beatles," Fenner maintains. "It's written for a better singer than me -- Ringo, perhaps, or Jiminy Cricket."

Or perhaps that Nashville Skyline guy, my man Boo Wilbury, whom I can easily hear "Predicting Good Things" that will almost certainly never come true. To be alone with Strange Friends, on a night like this, who needs a better prediction or prescription than that?

-- Tom Surowicz